Missouri Conservation agents thwart illegal catfish noodling

Catfish noodling, or hand-fishing, is illegal in Missouri due to
potential harm to fisheries. But the method also prompts junk to be
tossed into public lakes as accessories.

Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) agents in recent weeks
pulled 142 noodling boxes or containers from Truman Lake. Agents
found water heaters, pipes, metal tanks, plastic barrels, wooden
boxes and old tractor tires modified for hand fishing.

In noodling — also called grabbing — catfish are taken off
spawning nests by yanking them out of cavities where they lay and
protect eggs. Poachers who target spawning catfish in lakes create
underwater cavities that lure fish by tossing containers into
shallow water. Then they wade to containers and remove fish.

A two-foot drop in Truman Lake this summer and better water
clarity made noodling containers easier to see from boats, said
Conservation Agent Rob Farr of Benton County. Agents also use
side-scan sonar and observations from helicopters to locate
containers and sometimes to nab poachers. Some noodlers were caught
and issued citations this summer, and agents are still watching
some sunken containers for activity.

“With the water low, we’ve had quite a lot of success finding
these things during the last month and a half,” Farr said.

Agents in northwest Missouri this summer also issued citations
for illegal fishing methods to several noodlers who were grabbing
large catfish from natural cavities under banks. This was in small,
easily-waded streams.

Catfish reproduction and populations in small rivers can be
easily harmed by removing brood fish from nests.

Conservation Agent Eric Abbott made arrests on the Tarkio River
in Atchison County where the river was only 20 yards wide. Noodlers
possessed flathead catfish topping 40 pounds.

“It’s sad because most of the folks doing this don’t realize
they’re taking the brood fish, and that it takes many years for
these fish to grow that size,” Abbott said. “The fishery cannot
stay healthy when those fish are taken year after year.”

Noodling removes fish that would otherwise be available to
anglers using legal fishing methods such as rod and reel or set
lines.

Catfish studies by MDC in the state’s waters also show that
noodling can harm catfish populations.

“People don’t realize that when they’re taking one brood fish
off the nest they’re killing thousands of eggs,” said Conservation
Agent Alan Bradford, who made arrests this summer for noodling in
Grindstone Creek in Daviess County.

Flathead catfish are most commonly targeted, in part because
large males will stay on nests to defend eggs, even when disturbed.
Females lay eggs in a cavity and then the males, often up to 50
pounds or larger, fan the nests with a swimming motion to keep eggs
clean and alive. They also keep predators away that would eat eggs,
such as small fish.

When agents pulled noodling boxes and tanks to near the
shoreline at Truman Lake this summer, many containers had eggs and
fish inside. The male flatheads stayed inside, protecting the eggs
rather than swimming away, said Mike Burton, Protection district
supervisor.

“We had to dump them out since the fish would not leave,” Burton
said. “That’s how fiercely they wanted to guard the nest.”

Anyone spotting illegal fishing activity, including noodling or
dumping containers into lakes, can contact their local conservation
agent or call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-392-1111, 24 hours a
day. Callers may remain anonymous and rewards are available for
information leading to arrests.

Citations are issued to those caught hand-fishing, a Class-A
misdemeanor that is punishable by up to a year in jail and fines up
to $1,000. The loss of hunting and fishing privileges is also
possible.

“They’re targeting key fish,” said Tory Mason, a Fisheries
biologist in northwest Missouri. “Noodling can wipe out a large
portion of the spawning population in some areas.”

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